Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Building a Sustainable Motorcycle


As a long-time fan of two-wheel transport, I've been disappointed that the motorcycle world has lagged behind automotive advances in clean-running sustainability. This concept design by Jordan Meadows, highlighted by GizMag, does much to open up new possibilities for motorcycle design without abandoning sustainable principles.

Jordan notes:
"The concept is powered by a v4 engine running on bio diesel. This increases the range and MPG well above conventional gasoline bikes while running on a fuel which is more environmentally-friendly. Its frame and skin are crafted from recycled aluminum.

"This has the advantage of saving weight to enhance performance while reclaiming pre-used material. In the manufacturing process, the alloy is treated to patina and age naturally without expensive and harmful paint applications.

In this age of looming Peak Oil, motorcycles have a lot to offer for individual transport and designs incorporating bio diesel fuel deserve more attention.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Waste Not, Want Not


One of the deeply ingrained problems of our Western culture, particularly in the U.S., is that we've been living through a period of abundance with profligate attitudes. Many of our current energy challenges could be met by simply being less wasteful.

Generating electricity from waste heat is a step in the right direction. A Waste Heat Engine designed by Cyclone Power Technologies, as profiled in this gizmag article, can generate up to 10kw, recapturing energy from heat sources such as biomass combuston, industrial ovens, and furnaces.

Journalist Paul Evans notes:

The first WHE system will be installed at Bent Glass Design in Hatboro, PA. This system will harness waste heat from the customer’s glass manufacturing furnaces, and is expected to produce enough electricity to light their 65,000 ft2 facility while providing a quick payback possibly within two or three years.

Smart technology! We need more of this kind of approach.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bugatti: The Last Grand Accomplishment of the Age of Oil


Those of us born in the 50's or 60's (maybe even later) are so thoroughly enraptured by the mystique of the automobile that—even though the reality of peak oil is as inescapable as a future visit from the grim reaper—we still can't totally escape the visceral admiration of machines that can propel bodies at fantastic speeds with unflappable precision.

WIRED reviewer Joe Brown did a nice job of straddling the line between fantasy and irony in his piece, Peak Oil: Bugatti Makes a Car for the Ages. This machine is at once a monument to excess and gluttony while at the same time being an example of the engineering expertise of a species that celebrates the sheer joy of making things, with nary a concern how those things will affect the planet as a whole. Nuclear bombs, genetically modified crops, nanotechnology, and a host of other engineering marvels fit under this umbrella. It creates a certain schizophrenic point of view—a perspective that makes it possible to see the Apollo moon landings with a sense of awe and simultaneously condemn the incredible amounts of money consumed while people around the world starve.

At the article's close, Brown adds a nice summation:

Maybe we'll idolize maglevs next. Maybe Tesla will have its day on a Trapper Keeper with a juice box that tops 250. But whatever we're drooling over next year, whatever makes its way onto the dorm-room walls and man-children's screen-savers, it won't run on petrol. Unless it's still a Veyron: the last king of the gas-guzzlers, forever the greatest. All hail.

It gets 10 miles per gallon, but it sure is something.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tibetan Solar Technology


As reported by Kellie Schmitt in The Faster Times, Tibetan nuns regularly tap into the power of the sun, thin as the rays may be on the Lhasa mountainside. Next time your yak butter tea needs heating you might try this low-tech but effective technique.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Health Physicist Talks of Three Mile Island Coverup


As reported in a detailed investigative piece by Sue Sturgis in Facing South, Randall Thompson, the health physicist hired to monitor radiation emissions in the aftermath of the near meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in March of 1979, spoke of radiation releases hundreds to thousands of times higher than official reports.

The number of discrepancies between the government and Kemeny Commission findings are numerous and extremely disturbing, based on the first-person experiences of Randall Thompson and his wife, Joy, who was hired to monitor the radiation doses received by TMI workers.

They [the Thompsons] also offer evidence of atmospheric releases of dangerously long-lived radioactive particles such as cesium and strontium -- releases denied by the Kemeny Commission but indicated in the Thompsons' own post-disaster monitoring and detailed in the report -- and show that there were pathways for the radiation to escape into the environment. They demonstrate that the plant's radiation filtration system was totally inadequate to handle the large amounts of radiation released from the melted fuel and suggest that the commission may have arbitrarily set release estimates at levels low enough to make the filtration appear adequate.

Shockingly, they also report that when readings from the dosimeters used to monitor radiation doses to workers and the public were logged, doses of beta radiation -- one of three basic types along with alpha and gamma -- were simply not recorded, which Joy Thompson knew since she did the recording. But Thompson's monitoring equipment also indicated that beta radiation represented about 90 percent of the radiation to which TMI's neighbors were exposed in April 1979, which means an enormous part of the disaster's public health risk may have been wiped from the record.

Finally, in a separate analysis the Thompsons point to discrepancies in government and industry accounts of the disaster that suggest the TMI Unit 2 suffered a scram failure -- that is, a breakdown of the emergency shutoff system. That would mean the nuclear reaction spiraled out of control and therefore posed a much greater danger than the official story allows.

The Thompsons aren't the only ones who have produced evidence that the radiation releases from TMI were much higher than the official estimates. Arnie Gundersen -- a nuclear engineer and former nuclear industry executive turned whistle-blower -- has done his own analysis, which he shared for the first time at a symposium in Harrisburg last week.

"I think the numbers on the NRC's website are off by a factor of 100 to 1,000," he said.

The story also describes the threats received by the Thompsons as they attempted to make this information public, which eventually caused them to move to New Mexico in fear for their lives. The truth of the Three Mile Island incident threatens a multi-billion dollar industry trying to revive itself and those indifferent to public safety seem willing to go to any lengths to hide the truth.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Small-scale solar transforms Kenya

President Obama's Kenyan grandmother, Sarah, goes solar in this Greenpeace video. Good work yields good results...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

New Wind Energy Milestone: 4,000 megawatts in Six Months


The wind-power juggernaut continues, with a promising new milestone announced by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and reported by Consumer Reports.

AWEA CEO Denise Bode commented:

“The numbers are in, and while they show the industry has been swimming upstream, adding some 4,000 MW over the past six months, the fact is that we could be delivering so much more,” said AWEA CEO Denise Bode. “Our challenge now is to seize the historic opportunity before us to unleash this entrepreneurial force and build up an entire new industry here in the U.S. that will create jobs, avoid carbon, and strengthen our energy security. To achieve that, Congress and the Administration must pass a national Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) with strong early targets.”

Among the states that added substantial new generating capacity are Texas (454 MW), Iowa (160 MW), and Missouri (146 MW). Manufacturing investment in the U.S., however, is not as strong as in other countries, such as China, according to Bodine.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cooling the Planet with White Roofs


Some energy solutions are complicated. Others are amazingly simple. Among the simplest is a trend that has developed in California to use heat reflective properties of white surfaces to save energy. Homeowners and businesses are installing roof coverings made of a shiny plasticized material that can reduce air-conditioning costs by 20 percent or more during sunny weather, as reported by Felecity Barringer in a New York Times article, White Roofs Catch On as Energy Cost Cutters.

As shown in the photo (by J. Emilio Flores), a Chino, CA discount store relies on a combination of solar panels and white roof covering to minimize energy requirements.

This approach is validated by historical precedents dating back centuries.

The physics behind cool roofs is simple. Solar energy delivers both light and heat, and the heat from sunlight is readily absorbed by dark colors. (An asphalt roof in New York can rise to 180 degrees on a hot summer day.) Lighter colors, however, reflect back a sizable fraction of the radiation, helping to keep a building — and, more broadly, the city and Earth — cooler. They also re-emit some of the heat they absorb.

Unlike high-technology solutions to reducing energy use, like light-emitting diodes in lamp fixtures, white roofs have a long and humble history. Houses in hot climates have been whitewashed for centuries.

It's going to take a multitude of techniques, as well as substantial lifestyle changes, to cope with climate disruption threats, but something as simple as a white roof isn't a bad place to get started.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Zero Energy Homes Within Reach


A recurring theme in this blog is that the answers to many of our energy problems have already been solved. Making changes, however, to our building practices, transportation systems, public utility regulations, and legal infrastructure in order to implement proven energy-saving strategies is a daunting challenge at multiple levels.

A recent post on the TerraPass site by Adam Stein illustrates this point. Steins writes about the latest generation Passive Houses that rely on airtight design, sophisticated ventilation systems, and thick insulation to create a living space that consumes 90 percent less energy than a typical home. Add some supplementary power from a renewable source and you have what is essentially a Zero Energy Home.

One builder that Stein showcases, Postgreen, has applied innovative building techniques to the equation, resulting in a LEED Platinum home being built in Philadelphia with total construction costs of $100,000.

While their urban dwelling design style might not suit everyone's taste, it's clear that a zero energy home can be extremely affordable, as well as a way to dramatically lower a family's carbon footprint. These kinds of technologies should be springing up all over the country, wherever buildings--residential or commercial--are being constructed. Why they are not is more a matter of entrenched interests and a business-as-usual mindset than any practical considerations.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rearming the Population Bomb


It's unrealistic to have a serious discussion about sustainability and energy use without also bringing population growth into the discussion. It's a thorny topic for many, laden with religious overtones, economic growth dogma, reproductive freedom concerns, and even racial implications. All of these considerations pale in the face of a simple fact: the human population of the planet is rapidly overwhelming energy resources and threatening the recovery capacity of our ecosystem.

In a thoughtful article in the Summer 2009 issue of Earth Island Journal, Deborah Rich and Jason Mark examine population growth from several different angles and consider how we may have to rethink our economic model and political paradigms to effectively confront the probem.

Capping population growth and possible GDP will require a profound rethinking of our notions of progress and political clout. Historically, power and prestige – whether on the individual or societal levels – have been linked to size. Governments have balked at the idea of shrinking populations because declining numbers suggest a diminishment of economic force and military might. Many ordinary citizens worry that a smaller economy may lead to fewer opportunities for themselves and their children. The biggest challenge, then, is convincing people that growth for growth’s sake simply can’t keep working.

Getting to that conclusion will require a coordinated global effort. If we continue to maintain the ideal that size trumps everything, then any country that deliberately diminishes in population may put itself at a competitive disadvantage with its neighbors – at least until we learn to place a value on clean water, fertile land, and green space. Fewer workers mean higher wages, which means more costly products and probably lower exports. A nation that breaks from the dominant GDP paradigm and begins using more accurate economic accounting that includes the social and environmental costs of production will raise the costs of its products, further reducing its competitiveness. Essentially, we either grow together or shrink together.

For a real-time perspective on the current rate of population growth, drop into the Population Connection site and spend a few minutes watching the dynamic population counter for the world and the U.S. as it ticks off the births at a sobering pace.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Algae Powers Venice

venice algae

Work is underway in the City of Venice to build a 40-megawatt power plant that runs on fuel made from algae. Expected to be finished by mid-2011, the power plant will supply roughly 50 percent of the city's electricity requirements.

As reported in ecoworldly:

The algae will be cultivated in laboratories and put in plastic cylinders where water, carbon dioxide, and sunshine can trigger photosynthesis. The resulting biomass will be treated further to produce a fuel to turn turbines. The carbon dioxide produced in the process will be fed back to the algae, resulting in zero emissions from the plant. “Venice could represent the beginning of a global revolution of energy and renewable resources. Our goals are to achieve the energetic self-sufficiency for the seaport and to reduce CO2 emissions, including those one produced by the docked ships”, says the president of the seaport of Venice Authority, Paolo Costa.

Finding ways to extract energy from nuisance plants and biomass waste may be an effective means to move a few steps closer to zero emission energy production.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Microgeneration by Hydropower


New England mill towns have a long history of tapping into the power of water running downhill. In the Orion Magazine article, The Poetry of Power, Ginger Strand profiles the resurgence of hydro sites in the area and the role of Verne Tower and others in restoring facilities that have crumbled from neglect.

The tradeoff, of course, is the environmental damage caused by dams--both large and small--and the costs associated with mitigating that damage.

Cost is a highly rational way to make decisions. Big dams may not be ideal, but they’re efficient. Small dams do less harm, but their economic benefits may not outweigh the harm they do. One thing this assumes, of course, is that there’s no relationship between our centralized power grid and our profligate use of power. But it isn’t easy to connect the action of running your microwave to the burning of a hunk of coal two counties away. In the era of Big Energy, power has retreated from the public eye.

People who go off the grid learn to re-see it; when you’re making your own watts, turning on a light or a television has a tangible cost. Heatless Mondays become something to consider. Maybe TV-less Tuesdays too. Recently, when avalanches took out transmission towers that brought hydropower to Juneau, Alaska, the city was forced to run on diesel generators. The price of electricity increased from eleven cents a kilowatt-hour to fifty-three. Within weeks, consumption dropped by 30 percent. But it may not have been just about price. The hydropower plant was nearly thirty miles away; the diesel generators were all within the city limits. And they were dirty. By the time the transmission towers were repaired, the generators had pushed Juneau to the limit of its air-quality permit. Power use was suddenly a cause with effects you could see.

The realities of coping with difficult energy tradeoffs are inescapable as the pressures of global warming force us to rethink the traditional models of power generation. Microgeneration--deriving power from thousands of small sites rather than distributing it from a large site--is a model that has become one of the fastest growing alternative energy options.

Lori Barg, founder of the Vermont Small Hydro Association, commented:

“We’re losing one or two times as much power as we’re using in the end,” Lori says. “If you want to start looking at the economics, is a kilowatt-hour generated in Boston the same as a kilowatt-hour generated in Peterborough, when you have so many losses along the way? It’s like having a leaky bucket.”

A theme runs through the article--reconnecting people to the sources of their power. It's certainly an idea that merits consideration as we look to the sun, wind, and water to meet our power needs.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Rethinking Transportation

The imminent bankruptcies of major companies in the auto industry should be cause to rethink many of the basic premises of automobile transportation. Instead, Richard D. Wolff, Economist, Author, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, sees key industry players simply trying to repeat the mistakes of the past.

More at The Real News

Friday, April 24, 2009

Solar-Powered Movies


Employing unique cylindrical tubes, rather than panels, to capture solar energy, an installation on the roof of a Livermore, California movie theater has become the largest solar-powered cineplex. As described in an article for The Mercury News by Jeanine Benca, these solar modules work well in areas where windy conditions make it difficult to use solar panels.

For theater owner Dave Corkill, financial incentives were a factor, but there were other motivations.

"I just think it's the responsible thing to do in this world as a business owner. I think you have to be eco-conscious," he said.

In conclusion, the article notes Environmental Protection Agency estimates: the Livermore system will prevent the emission of more than 3,400 metric tons of greenhouse gases over the next 25 years.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Reservations Strong for Tesla Model S


GM and Chrysler are practically giving their vehicles away and still can't find takers. Even perennial market leaders Honda and Toyota are in the sales doldrums. But, even in this economic climate, Tesla Motors collected 520 pricey reservations (at $40,000 a pop) for an electric car that won't be delivered until 2011.

No ordinary car, the Tesla Model S has specifications that put electric vehicles on an equal footing with petroleum-powered machines, the only serious drawback the steep $49,900 price tag, which can be offset to the tune of $7500 by a tax credit. The Model S has a range of 300 miles, zips from 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds, seats 7 (if you count the two tiny baby seats in the hatch), offers a 45-minute quick charge, and provides cargo space that rivals a station wagon.

Clearly the demand is there:

"Frankly the number of cars reserved in the first week has exceeded our optimistic internal projections," said Tesla CEO, Chairman and Product Architect Elon Musk. "Enthusiasm surrounding the Model S is proof that there's pent-up demand for more affordable, fuel-efficient vehicles -- including those made in America."

No matter how many electric cars we put on the road, we can't drive ourselves out of the current climate destabilization path that the world is on. The electricity that charges the Model S can just as easily come from a coal-fired plant as it can from a community wind farm or even a solar installation on the garage roof. The Model S does show that a practical electric car is a feasible mode of transportation while we're busy restoring our railway systems, revamping public transportation, and rethinking city planning paradigms.

More on this intriguing machine can be found on Treehugger or on the Tesla Motors site.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Middlebury College Becoming Carbon Neutral


With a target to achieve carbon neutral operations by 2016, Middlebury College in Vermont has taken a major first step in that direction with the completion of a $12 million dollar biomass boiler and plant. Bill McKibben, whose organization 350.org is playing a major role in calling for a fair global climate treaty, participated in the opening ceremonies and gave a lecture on the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions/

At optimal capacity, which the plant is expected to reach over the next month, the facility will consume about three tons of wood chips an hour and meet about half the campus’s heating, cooling and hot-water needs. The other half will still be supplied by boilers that burn No. 6 fuel oil, but the overall campus use of such oil will be cut in half, from 2 million gallons a year to 1 million. As a result, the college’s carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced about 40 percent, or 12,500 metric tons a year.

Middlebury College is working to develop its own supply and wood chips on its surrounding property and also investigating the potential of geothermal energy for further reducing carbon emissions. More details are available in this article, orginally published in the Burlington Free Press.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Peak Everything

An economy designed around the cornucopia principle of unlimited growth--as most are in the world--doesn't fare well when the fundamental, non-renewable sources of energy start running out. A nice, concise summation of the problem in this video by Richard Heinberg.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Primed for the Denver Auto Show: the LH4


Many of the more interesting hybrid vehicle designs are coming not from the established automotive giants (whose stature seems to be shrinking daily), but from innovative smaller firms. Lightning Motors has come up with a design that combines an efficient diesel engine with a 150-horsepower Rexroth hydraulic hybrid system to produce a sleek machine, which will be unveiled at the Denver Auto Show, capable of achieving 100 miles per gallon. The associated article in Wired.com, 100-MPG Hybrid Evokes the Classic '63 Corvette, by Ben Mack explains how a technology originally targeted for delivery trucks adapts quite well for automobiles.

Hydraulic hybrids use a diesel engine to drive a hydraulic pump, which charges an accumulator - essentially a high-pressure tank. The accumulator, in turn, drives smaller pump motors that send power to the axle or power the wheels directly. Such systems have been around since the 1980s but limited to delivery trucks - UPS plans to roll out the first of seven sometime this year - because the accumulators are bulky and tough to fit within the confines of a passenger car. Lightning Hybrids isn't saying how it will address this problem but insists it is "working night and day" on it.

The Lightning Hybrids look like strong contenders for the Automotive X-Prize competition. First-place winners will walk away with ten million dollars.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Students Protest Coal on Capitol Hill

The dirtiest energy source around still has the potential to derail efforts to combat global warming. A massive student protest on 3 MAR 09, as captured by the Real News, brought the issue directly to their legislators.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Beyond the Stimulus: A Global Green Deal


With indications that global warming is accelerating faster than many earlier computer models predicted, you would think that this information would spur a concerted global effort to reverse the trend. But so far the response of most governments around the world has been fairly tepid and the levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise in those countries most responsible for the problem.

In a recent article for The Nation, A Global Green Deal, Mark Hertsgaard makes a case for a massive program of green investment to lift people out of poverty, stimulate the worldwide economy, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Hertsgaard believes the Obama's stimulus package is a good start, but more most be done to contend with the problem.

The stimulus package is a good start. It contains $71 billion in direct green spending and $20 billion in green tax incentives, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. The World Resources Institute has calculated that every $1 billion in green spending generates approximately 30,000 jobs, so the green portions of the stimulus package should create about 2 million jobs, many in the construction sector, which has been hit especially hard. Retrofitting buildings, installing solar panels and constructing wind farms require skilled and semiskilled labor and create decent-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced. Investing in climate-friendly development in poor countries, where money buys more, should yield even more jobs and economic uplift--no small consideration, given the recent warning from the US director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, that the economic downturn could become the gravest threat to international stability if it triggers a return to the "violent extremism" of the 1930s.

But even more will have to be done, at home and abroad, if we are to slash emissions quickly enough to preserve a livable planet. President Obama has promised to reduce US emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This sounds impressive compared with the Bush/Cheney years, but precisely because of Bush-era foot-dragging, the United States and the rest of the world need to achieve larger and faster emissions reductions than previously assumed. We have "a very short window of time," Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in January at a Worldwatch Institute conference. If we want to avoid such scenarios as twenty feet of sea-level rise, which would put most of the world's big cities under water, the rise in global temperatures must be limited to 2.0 to 2.4 Celsius above preindustrial levels. That means global emissions must peak by 2015 and then fall rapidly for decades, said Pachauri. In this context, he added, Obama's goal "falls short of the response needed by world leaders" in preparation for the negotiations in Copenhagen in December to produce a successor to the Kyoto treaty. Instead, Pachauri urged Obama to embrace the European Union's target: reducing emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, which the EU says it will achieve by increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy by 20 percent.

The article then charts a course for a more effective approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including techniques through which energy efficiency alone can produce substantial reductions in emissions while producing strong economic development.

The data and the incentives make it clear that there is no time left for dawdling. Fortunately, the actions that have the best chance to mitigate climate disruption are actions that also have the potential to revive a stagnant worldwide economy.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Diet and Carbon Footprints

Children gathering potatoes on a large farm, vicinity of Caribou, Aroostook County, Me. Schools do not open until the potatoes are harvested (LOC)
Originally uploaded by The Library of Congress

The agroindustrial machinery (as Julia Whitty calls it in her article, Diet for a Warm Planet) currently in place around the world is a major contributing factor to carbon emissions. Changing what we put on our plate and thinking more carefully about how we produce and distribute food could go a long way toward curbing global warming.

Simply eating less could have a positive impact on reducing carbon emissions, Julia noted.

Seriously. Body fat. My personal flab is not just a private matter between me and my coronary arteries. Nineteen percent of US energy usage—about as much as is used to fuel our cars—is spent growing and delivering food to the average American who consumes 2,200 pounds of food a year. That's a whopping 3,747 calories a day—or 1,200 to 1,700 more than needed for personal or planetary health. The skinny truth is that as much as 7.6 percent of total energy in the United States today is used to grow human fat, fat that translates to 3,300 pounds of carbon per person.

Sure, liposuction is an untapped fuel source—and New Zealander Pete Bethune extracted 3.38 ounces of his own fat to add to the biofuel powering his carbon-neutral boat, Earthrace. But a more sustainable strategy would be to avoid growing the fat in the first place. A comprehensive Cornell University study found that we could cut our food energy usage in half by simply eating less, cutting back on meat and junk food, and considering the source of our food.

For starters, half of our food energy use comes from producing and delivering meat and dairy. If we gave up just meat, we could maintain that hefty 3,747-calorie intake but consume 33 percent less in fossil fuels doing it. If Americans cut just one serving of meat a week, it would equal taking 5 million cars off the road.

One-third of those 3,747 daily calories comes from junk food—potato chips, soda, etc. We can save on fossil fuel costs in this area by installing more efficient lighting, heating, and cooling in the plants that make the stuff and by using less packaging materials. But we'd save a lot more if you and I simply bought less of it. A can of diet soda, for instance, delivers only 1 calorie of food energy at a cost of 2,100 calories to make the drink and the can. Transporting the components and the finished product costs even more, and shipping processed food and its packaging accounts for much of the problem of America's food averaging 1,500 travel miles before it's eaten.

Changing habits--especially habits as personal as dietary preferences--is never easy, but it's worth considering that what we put in our mouths may be pushing us a few steps closer to global warming disaster.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Grid? We don't need no stinkin' grid. . .

Power Plant at Sunset
Originally uploaded by lady_lbrty

A recent guest post in the New York Times by Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute speaks to a theme that is becoming increasingly prevalent in energy discussions: the advantages of distributed generation. Putting clean, small-scale power plants close to where the energy is needed makes more sense than building mammoth power plants, rebuilding the nationwide electrical grid, and then distributing electricity over hundreds of miles.

The core of the argument goes like this:

Bigger power plants’ hoped-for economies of scale were overwhelmed by diseconomies of scale. Central thermal power plants stopped getting more efficient in the 1960’s, bigger in the 1970’s, cheaper in the 1980’s, and bought in the 1990’s. Smaller units offered greater economies from mass production than big ones could gain through unit size. In the 1990’s, the cost differences between giant nuclear plants — gigantism’s last gasp — and railcar-deliverable, combined-cycle, gas-fired plants derived from mass-produced aircraft engines, created political stresses that drove the restructuring of the utility industry.

Meanwhile, generators thousands or tens of thousands of times smaller — microturbines, solar cells, fuel cells, wind turbines — started to become serious competitors, often enabled by IT and telecoms. The restructured industry exposed previously sheltered power-plant builders to brutal market discipline. Competition from a swarm of smaller electrical sources and savings created financial risks far beyond the capital markets’ appetite. Moreover, the 2008 Defense Science Board report “More Fight, Less Fuel” advised U.S. military bases to make their own power onsite, preferably from renewables, because the grid is vulnerable to long and vast disruptions.

Lower risk energy projects constructed on a human scale have a greater chance of success than past-generation mega power plants. The market is swiftly coming around to recognize this fact.

Monday, February 02, 2009

From a Fossil-Fuel to a Green Economy

From Nation videos, some thoughts on the benefits of moving from an economy based on fossil fuels to one that generates jobs though solar projects, wind energy, and energy efficiency.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Distributed Generation Approach


We've grown up in a country where when you flipped the switch on the wall to light a lamp, the electricity came from a power source dozens or maybe hundreds of miles away. This centralized model of power distribution is beginning to give way to a smarter approach: distributed generation. Small wind farms, solar installations for a building or apartment complex, co-generation systems that heat a neighborhood, geothermal deployments that heat in the winter and cool in the summer.

In this article in The Nation, Think Solar, Think Small, Craig Rosen builds a case for abandoning the grand notions of a national backbone grid in favor of small-scale, community-oriented power generation. He writes:

To be sure, the romance of a renewable national grid is classic American thinking: a big problem requires a big solution. But the distributed generation approach (DG in energy lingo) is emerging from advances in solar technology and detailed studies of alternatives to big power-line projects. Consider what happened when Minnesota regulators looked carefully last year at the CapX 2020 project, a proposed cluster of new power lines costing up to $1.7 billion. A key purpose of the lines was to link Minnesota with proposed wind farms in the Dakotas. This is just the type of project favored by Pickens and other supporters of big electric transmission. But after examination the regulators found that Minnesota could develop many small 10-40 megawatt wind farms within the state totaling 600 megawatts--equivalent to a modern power plant--without any new transmission.

"We call it the '600 megawatts for nothing' study," said Mike Michaud, an engineer and consultant who formerly worked with the state regulatory staff. "There was no denying there were twenty spots on the existing grid [where] you could put generation for no cost at all." Michaud added that there is no guarantee the $1.7 billion transmission project would be restricted to clean power--it might in some cases be used to transport power from coal-burning plants.

He mentions a study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance that determined half the states in the U.S. could be energy self-sufficient by harnessing renewables within their borders, satisfying a considerable fraction of their own energy needs.

Powerful food for thought...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Renewable Energy in the 21st Century

One of the refreshing parts of the following independent short, Unlimited: Renewable Energy in the 21st Century, is the perspective of the young people interviewed. If there is hope for the human population of this harried planet, it's in the upcoming generation's unvarnished, unblinkered viewpoints.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Friday, January 09, 2009

Global Perspective on Green Stimulus Packages

The U.S. isn't the only country determined--under Barack Obama's leadership--to get its economy rolling through stimulus packages to produce alternative energy. This piece, from LinkTV, offers a concise view of what some other countries are doing in this area.